Virtual reality promises to be great for gamers, but it has a lot of potential to change the world in other ways. Shauna Heller saw that potential, so she quit her job at Oculus VR and became a consultant to make non-VR applications happen. And one of her projects was create a VR simulation that trains doctors how to treat infants in emergencies.
Heller pulled together a team of developers and technologists and matched them with surgeons at the Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles. Together, they made a VR simulation that helps doctors in training to save infants who have suffered some kind of seizure or anaphylactic shock.
They worked with the consumer-grade Oculus Rift + Touch. The project began in early 2016 and went through two prototyping developments. The team delivered a working model in early 2017 and the development and medical teams will continue to monitor and enhance the virtual world as more users learn with it. About 18 developers worked on it.
“This is a really important part of VR,” said Heller, executive director on the project and former developer relations liaison for non-game projects at Oculus. “It takes a game technology and enables it to be used for training in the medical space, where children’s lives on the line.”
Facebook’s Oculus VR division, maker of the Oculus Rift VR headset, funded the project. It is one of a number of projects that the company calls “VR for good,” and in the long run, such projects could bring home the real value of VR to society.
Heller was one of the original members of the Oculus team. But she wasn’t as passionate about games as she was about other uses for VR. As a consultant, she got a tip from Oculus about an idea to improve healthcare education with the immersive power of VR. Heller enlisted the help of AiSolve and VR developer BioflightVR. Both companies had done medical simulations before, and so they knew how to talk to the doctors at the hospital.
BioflightVR was founded by Hollywood visual effects wizards from the CBS show CSI. They wanted to put their skills to work with more social impact. Fortunately, they could understand medical terms that the doctors used, Heller said.
“BioflightVR was tasked with helping realize a grand vision—what the future of medical training could look like,” said Rik Shorten, chief creative officer and cofounder. “I can’t think of a better use for our team’s talents then helping doctors and residents learn and train using these dynamic new technologies.”
United Kingdom-based AiSolve is a immersive training and simulation company that developed a proprietary A.I. framework to create VR content. Together, the two companies worked closely with the hospital, even to the point of scanning in the images of real nurses.
The doctors conceived the scenarios. A team of programmers at AiSolve took the conceived medical environment and created an AI-powered virtual world where students can make decisions and progress or re-evaluate their decisions based upon responses from the virtual patient, virtual medical staff and program.
Pediatric emergencies are rare, but by their nature, they are intense. The time pressure is huge, measured in seconds or minutes. Young surgeons don’t get a chance to practice them in real life as much as necessary. They usually have to work with mannequins, and the cost can run $430,000 a year for just a single hospital to train surgeons on the same scenarios, according to Todd Chang, doctor at CHLA. The cost of the VR system is less than that amount, Heller said.
“This sort of cutting-edge medical training is where VR shines,” said AiSolve CEO Devi Kolli, in a statement “Working with the project team and CHLA doctors, we harnessed our AI-powered VR simulation tech to closely replicate real-life scenarios in a way simply not possible before. Plus, the AI features let students customize their learning, which strengthens their skills in the long run.”
The VR simulation reproduces the scenarios and captures it in a controlled training experience, where the performance can be measured.
The simulation reproduces the emergency situation. Paramedics rattle off symptoms. Nurses and technicians turn to you, as the doctor, to make a decision. Disraught parents pray for the child’s survival. It’s like a real Hollywood drama, but it is visceral and interactive. It prepares the surgeon for a real life emergency, without using real humans as guinea pigs.
“We’ve been testing the validity of VR as a training and assessment tool for medical resuscitations, and the preliminary results are strong,” said Josh Sherman, CHLA doctor, in a statement. “Even physicians with little video game experience caught on quickly and gave us great feedback. We’re also seeing a similar stress response in the VR experiences compared to real-life ER situations. Our trainees know it’s a simulation, but it feels real—and that makes all the difference.”
By recreating real cases in VR, students and doctors can repeatedly go over tough scenarios until they get the diagnosis and treatment correct. CHLA is actively using two training modules with medical students, residents, and doctors. The surgeons become faster over time. Based on the results, Oculus said that it is hoping to ramp up support for medical professionals.
AiSolve CEO Devi Kolli said that the virtual training developed has multiple applications across industry sectors and that the objective at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles was to work with medical experts to ensure technical and environmental accuracy.
“Experiential learning is among the best way to practice pediatric emergencies,” Chang said. “We had a rather aggressive timetable and the VR simulation literally improved week by week. VR allows for the first-time experiential learning where not all the people are in the same room at the same time. It is far more flexible and students can perform the training far more often.”
Both AiSolve and Bioflight VR have moved on to related projects.